In his Small Catechism explanation of the 8th Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor), Luther says: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light” (Book of Concord 353.16, emphasis my own). Going into greater depth with his Large Catechism, Luther says about the commandment: “No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one shall say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false, unless it is done with proper authority or for that person’s improvement. Rather, we should use our tongue to speak only the best about all people, to cover the sins and infirmities of our neighbors, to justify their actions, and to cloak and veil them with our own honor” (BC 424.285, emphasis my own). Immediately following these lines, Luther explains why: “Our chief reason for doing this is the one that Christ has given in the gospel, and in which he means to encompass all the commandments concerning our neighbor, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.’ [Matthew 7:12]” (BC 424.286). Instead of focusing on what the commandment condemns and forces, Luther turns it into a positive—lifting up what it promises and invites. The gospel does not erase the law (in this case, the 10 Commandments), but transforms it. In breaking the 8th commandment, we destroy our relationships with one another, and we hurt God who blesses us with these people in our life. To “interpret everything [our neighbor does] in the best possible light” means looking upon others with love, living and participating in the forgiveness of sins given to all people through Jesus Christ, and not angrily disassembling that which God has beautifully created—our neighbor. The 8th commandment invites us to lift one another up, to affirm each other instead of speculating against our neighbor, and to live in the promise that all are made new in the Risen Christ.
The reason we should interpret the actions of others in the best possible manner, for Luther, is because Jesus called his disciples to this practice (which we term The Golden Rule) in his Sermon on the Mount. Hearing the “Golden Rule,” it reminds me of the similarly conditional fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us) which Jesus teaches his disciples to pray (Matthew 6:9-15) just a little earlier. Our actions toward others should resemble that which we would wish them to do us, just as we pray God will forgive us as we have forgiven others. What we seek is connected with how we live with and tend to those around us. One could say: we reap what we sow. If we give hate and judgment (to others), we ought to be mindful that we are likely to receive the same in return—whether from others or God. In his Small Catechism explanation of the fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther says: “We ask in this prayer that our heavenly Father would not regard our sins nor deny these petitions on their account, for we are worthy of nothing for which we ask, nor have earned it. Instead we ask that God would give us all things by grace, for we daily sin much and indeed deserve only punishment. So, on the other hand, we, too, truly want to forgive heartily and to do good gladly to those who sin against us” (BC 358.16, emphasis my own). Pointedly, Luther goes deeper in his Large Catechism: “[God] has promised us assurance that everything is forgiven and pardoned, yet on the condition that we also forgive our neighbor. For just as we sin greatly against God every day and yet he forgives it all through grace, so we also must always forgive our neighbor who does us harm, violence, and injustice, bears malice toward us, etc. If you do not forgive, do not think that God forgives you” (BC 453.93-95, emphases my own). Therefore, for example, if I do not forgive my neighbor who lies about me behind my back, how can I expect God to forgive me when I do the same to another? To put it positively: since I am forgiven daily, in spite of my bearing false witness against my neighbors, in faith and love I am called to do the same in forgiving others for their breaking the 8th commandment as well.
So, as I think about the relationship between these two fundamental pieces of scripture which are central to catechesis (the 8th commandment & the fifth petition in the Lord’s Prayer), I feel simultaneously confronted and comforted. I am confronted in my (far too many times) speaking against my neighbor—whether in the form of a lie or gossip—coupled with my failure to forgive others as I have been forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. I am a sinful, selfish person who constantly falls into the temptation of inwardly curving my attention on myself at the expense of God and others. Luther understood this human fact, and was brutally honest about it. Yet, I am comforted in the promise that I am forgiven by God in Jesus Christ for all my sins—for the far too many times I break the 8th commandment, and even for my failure to forgive others as I should.There is great joy in this good news—for which none of us can undo, no matter what we do or leave undone. When the temptation to bear false witness against my neighbor arises (as with any sin), what if our minds instead went to fifth petition of the Lord’s Prayer? Breaking the cycle of feeding into self-edifying practices, the Risen Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, calls us to die to sin and live in the joy of being resurrected people of God. This means accepting the forgiveness God showers us with, embodying it in our daily lives, and copiously sharing it with the world around us. We need not live in fear, doubt, or despair—competing for that which is freely given to all: life anew. In forgiving others as richly as we, ourselves, have been forgiven, we actually bear a witness that is neither false, nor destructive; but is true beyond all else—a witness that is affirming of God’s goodness and grace, life-giving.
I am guilty of breaking the 8th commandment and failing to see everything my neighbor says or does in the best possible light. For that, I confess my sin and brokenness to God—trusting and hoping that God alone, by the power of the Spirit, can free me from the chains of sin and death, and raise me to new life in the Risen Christ. I pray that the Spirit may guide me in repentance—changing my ways to reflect God’s gracious witness proclaimed in water and the Word at my baptism, and through bread and wine at the table of holy communion. I am forgiven—each and every day—not because I am without sin, nor because I have earned it; but only because I am looked upon as precious in the sight of God, loved nonetheless, and claimed as a beloved child welcomed in through Jesus’ death and resurrection. I pray, in petition and thankfulness, for the forgiveness God daily gives to me; and as I pray the words Jesus gives us, I ask God to open me up to practice forgiveness with others as abundantly as I am forgiven in Christ. May the Spirit help me to speak lovingly about my neighbor, throughout my journey of faith, as I would want them to speak of me; and may I seek to be generous in exercising forgiveness as God is gracious and generous in forgiving me through Jesus Christ.